Of course, there’s no right or wrong answer, each family will have to make its call, but let’s have a look at the options available.
We’ll look at this from an Italian point of view, examining education options available to bilingual families living in Italy. However, while schooling changes from country to country, most considerations will apply to most families wherever they live, in particular those concerning how to search and what to look for in bilingual education.
Let’s start by looking at Preschools, i.e. ,Day Nursery (Asilo Nido in Italy) – 0 to 3 years – and Kindergarten (Scuola Materna) -2.5 to 6 years.
The options available vary greatly depending on where one lives; Rome and Milan already don’t offer much, so imagine what a smaller town or a village might have to offer…. Moreover, foreign language schooling in Italy focuses primarily on English, with few exceptions for other languages located in Rome or Milan or in the bilingual regions (Trentino Alto Adige for German and Val D’Aosta for French).
For simplicity, I’ll use the word school to refer to both Day Nursery and Kindergarten. The options available for bilingual preschoolers are the following:
- International school, private
- Bilingual school, private
- School H&L, public or private
International schools (i.e. America, Enghlish, French, etc.) adopt the structure and methodologies of their original country. From an international school one should expect that all staff members are native speakers in that language. However, bear in mind that this doesn’t imply that the school is monolingual, because often many of the children enrolled are Italian or speak Italian as their first language, hence the children will most likely speak Italian among themselves. That said, it is a fact that the kids will hear a lot of English there, moreover these schools are more likely to attract foreign families, creating the opportunities to meet international playmates.
One should also ask whether the school adopts a specific methodology to encourage the children to speak English, and if so whether it is a strict one or not, or in general one the parents approve of.
Finally, from what I have discovered these schools target children starting from 3 years, and there are very few options in terms of International Day Nurseries.
What to ask when considering an International School:
- Are the teachers native speakers? Where are they from?
- Which techniques do they use to invite children to speak English/French/etc.?
- How many children in the school are majority language (Italian) native speaker?
- What does tuition cost?
Bilingual School can mean anything, so be prepared. In Italy there are few specific rules governing such a designation, so pretty much anybody can decide their school is bilingual. Some schools do have a native speaking teacher, who might keep the class either on their own or with an Italian colleague, sometimes all day, sometimes just for few hours here and there. But a school can call itself bilingual even if they offer just one or two hours of English per week, sometimes with an external teacher. So when you shop around for a bilingual school ask them to be very clear on the methodologies they adopt and the objectives they set for the second language, and then decide whether it’s worth the money (or the distance you’d have to travel).
What to ask when considering a Bilingual School:
- Are there native speaking teachers? Where are they from?
- How many native speaking teachers there are?
- How many hours per week/day do you offer with native speaking teachers?
- What are your objectives with regards to the minority language?
- Which methodology do you use to teach the second language?
- What does tuition cost?
This option will interest those who would like to introduce their children to English as a second or third language, rather than parents of English bilingual children. These are normal schools, either public or private, where the teacher has been trained with the Hocus & Lotus technique to teach a foreign language to preschoolers. Hocus & Lotus was been developed by Rome University la Sapienza to allow kindergarten teachers to teach a foreign language to their children. The teacher doesn’t have to be fluent in the language, but the objectives are very clearly stated and children are expected to learn a certain number of words per year. If you’d like to find out whether any school in your area offers H&L a good starting place is H&L’s website, but it’s not complete so you’ll also have to ask around.
What to ask to H&L School:
- Who does H&L, the class teacher or another teacher? (it should be the class teacher, as the methodology uses also the emotional bond between teacher and children to facilitate learning)
- How often do you do H&L? (it should be done daily)
- What type of support do you offer for parents to use H&L at home? (for the methodology to be successful parents should expose children also at home, at least through some DVDs)
- What are the objectives with regards to learning the second language?
Finally, a last word. Choosing the right bilingual kindergarten for children in Italy is very important, both for parents and for children. The kids will spend quite some time there, and it is important that they are happy and well cared for and that you are comfortable with your choice. Bilingualism is a nice plus, but my personal suggestion is above all to choose a school you like and are comfortable with. If you are a bilingual family, trust yourself, you can raise a child bilingual even if s/he goes to a normal school.
By Letizia Quaranta, editor of the bilingual parenting resource Bilinguepergioco